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Kindergarten Suit Filed in Hudson

By CNHT | October 11, 2008

October 11, 2008
Hudson-Litchfield News

Hudson School Board has voted to file suit in New Hampshire’s Supreme Court because they believe that legislation passed and signed into law by Governor John Lynch is unconstitutional.

“It’s not that we are against kindergarten,” said Superintendent Randy Bell, who has been a long-time proponent of public kindergarten, “but we believe that the voters should approve this and they have not.”

One of the underlying basis of the suit is that voters of the Hudson School District have not approved a kindergarten program and have not consented to a public kindergarten program. Prior to this state mandate, all new programs had to be approved by the voters.

Kindergarten will have significant costs for the Hudson School District. These costs are much too high for the district to absorb in its budget, and, without voter approval of spending, the district has no legal way to acquire needed funding.

The suit outlines both the expenditures needed as well as the history of the kindergarten dispute between the state and the 12 towns without it.

In 2007, with no legislation to authorize the action, Commissioner Tracy took the position that Chapter 270 of the 2007 New Hampshire laws required school districts, including the Hudson School District, to implement public kindergarten by September, 2008. Chapter 270 also established a joint legislative oversight committee, in part to ‘study and review transition assistance for school districts as the effective date of this section do not provide public kindergarten in order to enable those school districts to provide public kindergarten in accordance with RSA 193-E:2-a,’ wrote Attorney Diane Gorrow in one briefing to the school board.

That joint committee report was presented February 1, 2008, and it recommended that the legislature require school districts to provide half-day kindergarten no later than September, 2009. As a result of that, legislation was drafted and signed into law by Governor Lynch on July 11, 2008. It mandates that public kindergarten be offered by September 2009.

However, Section 28a of the New Hampshire Constitution, which was adopted in November 1984, states, “The state shall not mandate or assign any new, expanded or modified programs or responsibilities to any political subdivision in such a way as to necessitate additional local expenditures by the political subdivision unless such programs or responsibilities are fully funded by the state or unless such programs or responsibilities are approved for funding by a vote of the local legislative body of the political subdivision.”

Since the voters of Hudson (the local legislative body of the political subdivision) have not approved kindergarten, the Hudson School Board believes that the state must fully fund the program. The state has not provided such funding.

“To implement mandatory kindergarten, the Hudson School District will need to construct nine classrooms at a cost of $1,260,000 (9,000 square feet at $140 per square foot). Under RSA 198:15-r,I(a), the State will only pay 75 percent of that cost which is $945,000. The remaining $315,000, plus any interest, must be paid by additional local expenditures by the Hudson School District.”

“Besides construction costs, the Hudson School District will also incur unknown architectural and engineering costs to construct those nine classrooms. The State will not provide any funds to the Hudson School District for architectural or engineering costs. Therefore the entire amount of those costs must be paid by additional local expenditures by the Hudson School District,” Bell explained.

The suit also notes that the school district expects to pay an additional $15,000 per classroom for furnishing and equipment. Nine classrooms would cost $135,000, and it is unclear if the state will pay any of those costs.

“A conservative estimate of the cost in 2009-2010 for salaries and benefits for nine kindergarten teachers is $539,252 or $59,917 per teacher. The estimated cost of instructional materials would be $52,818 for the 2009-2010 school year and $27,050 for ensuing years. The cost of busing the kindergarten students on four buses on double runs is estimated as $234,668. The total operational cost for the Hudson School District to implement mandatory kindergarten in 2009-2010 is $826,739.

However, the state will not be covering the cost of operating kindergarten, as the suit points out. “The Hudson School District estimates that it will have 270 kindergarten students in the 2009-2010 school year, which is equal to the number of first graders enrolled in the Hudson School District in the 2008-2009 school year. Under RSA 198:48-b, II, the State will provide the Hudson School District $1,200 for each kindergarten student in 2009-2010. The State will, therefore, provide the Hudson School district with a total of $324,000 for operational costs. The remaining $502,739 must be paid by additional local expenditures by the Hudson School District.”

The suit points out that New Hampshire Department of Education acknowledged on May 15, 2008 that the aid would not be sufficient to cover operational costs for kindergarten, but offered no solution other than taxing residents.

Because the costs for implementing kindergarten are so high for the Hudson School District, the board and superintendent felt that this issue should be resolved in court. The suit asks the court to make a finding on behalf of the school district because the state law is unconstitutional. If such a finding is made, kindergarten implementation would not be done until funding was provided or the voters voted to approve the expenditures on the local level.

The recently implemented state law allows a school board to override the vote of the people and to override the Budget Committee’s ability to set and approve the amount of expenditures for this program, but it does not provide a funding mechanism. Bell estimated, at a conservative level, that the school district would have an unfunded liability of $2 million, and with the Hudson School District facing such a large unfunded expenditure, the board felt that there were few available to them. By filing the suit, the unfunded requirement will get a legal hearing, and the Supreme Court will decide if Section 28a of the New Hampshire Constitution does require state funding for the program when the voters have not approved it.

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